Yvette Cooper’s plan to rebrand ASBOs as ‘Respect Orders’ may be good politics – but it’s terrible policy, writes former Anti-Social Behaviour Officer Nick Pettigrew
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There is a telling moment during the HBO crime series The Wire, in which one enterprising dealer suggests to his fellow gang members that they simply change the colour of the vials they package their product in, in order to fool their customers into thinking they have something new to offer.
Cautious as I am to compare the Shadow Home Secretary to a drug dealer – the scourge she promised to clamp down on in a round of press interviews this week – her tactics have followed broadly similar lines.
First make the customer think the competing gang’s product is worthless, then promise them a stronger, but largely identical, product. Finally, back it up with appearing much tougher than the current crew on the block.
Yvette Cooper’s proposals to tackle anti-social behaviour – a job I spent more than 15 years doing as an Anti-Social Behaviour Officer – are the latest evidence of this attempt to rebrand policies from the past.
Ask any of my former colleagues on how best to reduce the prevalence of anti-social behaviour in society and the answer is unlikely to be short enough to fit on the outside of a mug.
However, what they almost certainly won’t say is that the answer is yet more new legislation and powers to deal with the issue. But this is exactly what Labour is now announcing, with its plan to resurrect Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) as newly rebranded ‘Respect Orders’.
The proposed new legal order would criminalise anyone committing repeated acts of anti-social behaviour and allow police to arrest them if they are caught doing so. The example Cooper used in a recent interview was that of a man drunkenly abusing women in a town centre.
This is all well and good, except for the fact that legal powers already exist to deal with exactly this kind of behaviour.
Labour also claims that the Conservatives have weakened enforcement powers to deal with anti-social behaviour. As reluctant as I am to defend this Government, this is a fundamental misrepresentation of the facts.
In reality, Labour’s own 1998 Crime and Disorder Act introduced many new powers to tackle anti-social behaviour, including the infamous ‘ASBO’ – a term still used by press and pundits despite the fact they were abolished nearly a decade ago. While it provided police and Anti-Social Behaviour Officers like me with new powers to deal with persistent offenders, the legislation was deeply flawed.
There were far too many options available, legal hoops to jump through, and ways in which they were meant to be applied. Many officers, when faced with the legislation, didn’t understand it and ended up not using it at all as the safer option. Those that did were often met in court with magistrates who also had a shaky grasp on what they were meant to be doing and this frequently resulted in a cack-handed, uneven or completely inappropriate use of enforcement powers.
This is what Labour now seems unable to grasp: a legal remedy is only as good as the people using it and, every time you introduce a new one, it can take years for all the kinks to be successfully ironed out.
The ‘Respect Order’ will likely face a similar fate, which would be fine if it was necessary, but nothing I’ve seen so far suggests that it will do anything that existing powers don’t already cover.
The 2014 Anti-social Behaviour Act, introduced by the Conservatives, while still far from perfect, massively streamlined Labour’s 1998 Act, doing away with numerous sanctions and court orders. But what it didn’t do is lessen the power authorities had to tackle anti-social behaviour. Arguably, it actually broadened the scope of what could be dealt with through the courts and the sanctions it introduced went much further.
So when Cooper says that the “Tories also cut enforcement powers when they abolished all the anti-social behaviour programmes we had under the last Labour Government and replaced them with much weaker policies instead” this is fundamentally untrue.
Some of the powers that existed in the 1998 Act were carried over in the 2014 Act and the sanctions if breached were, if anything, ‘stronger’ than what went before (if we accept the premise that making it easier to send people to prison, curtail their freedom of movement, or evict them equates to ‘strength’, of course).
Keir Starmer used the same approach recently when he promised to crack down on drug dealing on Britain’s estates. At each turn, we are encouraged to believe that old legislation is bad and new legislation is good – regardless of the substance.
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However, as a former Anti-Social Behaviour Officer, it is clear that the number of powers already available are wide-ranging.
These powers include Public Space Protection Orders (an order that bans certain behaviour from certain geographically-defined areas); injunctions with powers of arrest attached (these can also be Persons Unknown injunctions, where you’ve been unable to positively identify the perpetrators); Premises Closure Orders (a property can be boarded up and emptied, including the people who actually live there, for up to six months and the order can take less than a week to be granted); Gang Injunctions that stop groups of people associating with each other; and Dispersal Orders that allow police to tell groups of people to leave an area and not come back for 24 hours.
This isn’t nearly an exhaustive list of all the legal powers currently available. So to decide that yet more legal remedies are required is like Arnold Schwarzenegger ending his tooling-up montage in Commando by popping back into the kitchen to grab a potato peeler.
The devil, as always, will be in the detail and Labour has proposed other measures that could have an impact. These include pledges for more community policing, better protection for exploited teenagers in drug gangs, and more support for offenders to divert them away from anti-social acts. These are all good, solid measures that people who deal with anti-social behaviour have been demanding for years.
So it’s worrying that the headline measures have focused instead on the big stick approach with no suggestion of any carrot to go alongside it.
No doubt Labour is pushing on an open electoral door by wanting to appear more authoritarian to voters who, if current polls are to be believed, have had quite enough of this Government. However, if all Yvette Cooper is offering is to change the caps on its policy vials from red to blue, then the party will miss a major opportunity to really tackle these problems.
Nick Pettigrew is the author of the bestselling memoir, ‘Anti-Social: The Secret Diary of an Anti-Social Behaviour Officer’
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